During my internship at CITYNET I have had the chance to read and talk about NGO work and Foreign Aid repeatedly. Out of curiosity, I began looking at debates on whether foreign aid helps or worsens the situation for receiving countries. I will try and explain three points from three different TedTalks to give a somewhat wholesome idea of the debate. I have also added some of my thoughts and interpretations.

One of the arguments is that foreign aid crumbles the ability of the country to help itself, first world countries actually benefit from foreign aid because it keeps developing countries dependent on them. As Maliha Chishti in her TedTalk Foreign Aid: Are we really helping others or just ourselves? asks is the problem of foreign aid “too complicated” to dismantle? There’s no denying that there is a tremendous gap between rich and poor countries; in the past 50 years it has only gotten worse and although aid budgets have gone up, a glance at any news channel would tell you just how much they have been helping. Chishti’s work in war-inflicted zones shows that there isn’t progress. So why are countries throwing money at a problem that seems to suck up aid like a black hole? Because it makes money. Chishti mentions for every dollar given from governments (not counting individual donations to charities) to aid, the first world country receives $7-$10 dollars in debt repayment, profits, trade etc. The system is set up to keep the countries dependent.  She argues that the poor countries end up subsidizing the wealth of rich countries. Her own experience in non-for-profit and humanitarian work shows that there is an abundance of aid organizations in countries like Afghanistan, each set up to address their own projects, with often little regard for what the population actually wants. She approached the Canadian government for a menial amount of funding for a project in Afghanistan that would create mobile health-care vehicles so that more people have access to such services. The government rejected this project but suggested she come up with a project for improving human rights awareness amongst Afghan women and she can double the budget. Chishti explains how foreign governments have little interest in what the countries need, and more interest in what they want to provide. This is how organizations with good intentions are forced to respond to donors wants rather than receivers needs.

Linda Polmann is a freelance journalist and gave a TedTalk called What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid? A Journalist’s Journey. She has similar points to Chishti saying that international aid organizations do not work together but rather in competition with each other. To put things simply there is a limited amount of aid and a growing number of organizations fighting to secure the largest funding, the hot topics for humanitarian work are decided by the donors and various politics. So in order to secure the funding the aid organizations flood into hotspots such as Afghanistan (which is now deemed a black hole for aid) and start projects that target hot topics like human rights or development. It doesn’t matter that the people of Afghanistan need basic healthcare like clean water or sanitary products. Aid agencies would rather teach the women and children about feminism and human rights violations in their country because that’s what donors will fund. This is true in all cases she says; her experience in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake the country needed help to develop their infrastructure again or stopping a cholera breakout but neither of these options was the popular choice for aid.  UN trade and development program tried counting the number of aid organizations but stopped at 37,000; there are so many organizations in competition with each other they create what is called the humanitarian dilemma. It basically means aid organizations are in competition with each other, as they try to capture the most donors. We have to accept aid is an aid is an industry like any other, it is run by market laws. But this causes serious problems for aid receivers when their actual needs are not being met.

Haitian earthquake victims wonder aloud: why are we sending soldiers instead of food?

And lastly, Abhishek Parajuli in his TedTalk called Friendly Fire: How Foreign Aid Hurts Development says aid is counterproductive and not just ineffective because of human nature. Foreign aid debilitates the government from responding to its citizen’s needs and therefore the citizens care less about a government that is funded by foreign aid and not by the people. It’s as simple as if the people paid taxes and saw the taxes not being used they would speak up but if they didn’t pay taxes and foreign aid continues to fund the corrupt government the people don’t care, it doesn’t matter to them. This argument won’t make sense if you do pay taxes and see them used, the idea is outrageous, and it also doesn’t make sense if you understand economics. Because economics basically says money is fungible, it is just a store of value regardless of how the store is filled, the money will be regarded the same (money is money) but that’s not how people think. The money is separated in people’s minds, according to various studies cited in his talk, there is “money that I earned through my grit” and “lottery money”. The latter is “money to splurge” and the former is “money to be saved and valued”. Foreign aid is basically like lottery money, but your town major won the money. Yes, technically it should be your money too but you’re not in charge of it nor do you have it. So whatever, you have a family to take care of and no time for politics. Parajuli basically argues that we need to get the people to care about their government and their money for foreign aid to become effective. It is not enough to increase budgets and identify problems like poverty, overpopulation, famine or drought etc. His research and expertise are only in the development sector but I think it can be applied to all sectors of aid where the message would be foreign aid should help countries help themselves. Parajuli suggests finding ways to get Nepali people to understand they are already paying taxes, and their taxes are used in hospitals so when they’re asked for bribes they can refuse with conviction knowing hospital staff salaries come from taxpayers. Developing countries need to learn to take responsibility and pride in their own government. Chishti’s experience in Afghanistan meeting a well-educated, female, Afghan, humanitarian worker much better equipped to be giving out workshops than Chishti herself strengthens Parajuli’s point that these countries have the potential to help themselves.  So why don’t we use aid money to strengthen the existing systems in developing countries like their hospitals and schools instead of building new ones? What about using what is there and making it useful.

“Foreign Aid is friendly fire: that despite our best intentions, we’re spending billions of dollars that are hurting people and perhaps we need to redesign the way we spend this money”

After listening to Tedtalks about the pitfalls of Foreign Aid I was curious to see what the other side of the story was. I chose the following Tedtalk because it is was representative of the majority of videos supporting the current systems of foreign aid.

Joe Cerrell, the Gates Foundation’s Director of Europe and the Middle East, talks about the triumphs aid has achieved in the past 70 years over poverty and health care problems in Africa. His list of valuable work is impressive, and I do believe the children and families these foundations help are grateful for the aid work. But his entire speech is based on the premise that aid programs are supposed to work as the white coat saviors of African countries, that the UK/US/EU taxpayers and the government must put a collective fist forward to help Africa and that it is their duty to seize the moment. According to his speech in 1960 around 20 million children under the age of 5 would die from Guinea worms but because of aid efforts through various Gates-funded organizations, this number was brought down to 6 million in 2013. Which again is impressive, and I cannot deny that aid does save lives in the short term. But as he explains it is complicated, if you decrease the mortality of infants you’re increasing the population, this will have implications. He says yes this could lead to overpopulation but according to him it won’t because “the truth is that when you reduce child mortality and families know their children will survive they chose to have fewer babies. We’ve seen this in the case of the UK and other European nations where our great-great-grandparents typically had much larger families than the average today”. I think there are two things wrong with this scenario: one that he thinks it could only lead to overpopulation problems and two that his premise for disregarding this option is based on European history. Firstly, drastically intervening with health care programs not aimed to make the population self-aware only sets them up for failure. Simply put if you flood the towns/cities/villages with foreign aid funded hospitals, nurses, doctors, medicines and equipment  and staff who are working on budget, short time spans, and without any cultural knowledge of the country the mission is going reverse itself as soon as the aid is paused, cut or disturbed. Cerrell is aware of this which is why he argues for more investment to help. His ending argument is “I’ll show you what happens if we increased our access to children under five with five basic simple inexpensive interventions” which is basically a collective call to give more money to the right aid agency that will save Africa. He also shows various statistics on what would happen if foreign aid was pulled or halted, the devastating loss of life, no doubt true because developing countries are so dependent on foreign aid to help their poorest. He also doesn’t mention the many problems of dealing with a population that for decades has now as a part of its social fabric gotten used to infant death, there are other problems that families still face like famine, poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs etc so would the country really face overpopulation or just more deaths in older ages? We don’t know, and neither does the Cerrell. And secondly, his argument against the possibility of overpopulation is “ “We’ve seen this in the case of the UK and other European nations where our great-great-grandparents typically had much larger families than the average today”. It’s based on European culture’s response to decreased mortality. But leaves out a crucial point that these citizens were able to do this because they also saw a general betterment in their quality of life. Their countries had growing economies and no crippling debt to the World Bank. My point from this video is that there are a lot of loopholes in the framework of aid, the questions I have asked aren’t addressed. They cannot be when aid agencies are only aiming to secure as much funding as possible from taxpayers and the only way to do so is by making them feel like heroes, that their $10 can save the lives of poor African babies. Right now aid is stuck in a vicious cycle of fueling the same problems it is fighting, there are obviously some wins like Cerrell has highlighted but they aren’t solutions. It’s like wrapping duct tape around a breaking wooden chair, you have to keep adding duct tape or the chair will topple over.

After spending lots of time on this topic I’m still trying to understand the situation. I do know from my time at CITYNET that there is a way to provide useful and meaningful aid. I have seen this through the projects I’ve got to be a part of here and the work I have seen CITYNET staff do, collaborating with different cities to make them a safer place for citizens. I have also had numerous discussions with the staff about the challenges they face working in such an international and multicultural space. I asked them how they remain inclusive & open-minded? They answered that it is not hard to ask what the cities want. CITYNET is also lucky that the staff are well traveled, with a natural curiosity and respect for other cultures. All this is shown in the work that they do.

TedTalk Links: